Would you eat in a stranger's home?
The first course, a lush soup of cumin-roasted mushrooms, red lentils and cilantro, set the stage for the entire meal of creative, richly flavoured cooking, with a subtle use of spice. Ms. Mittal Naidoo, who had spent the whole day preparing, fluidly moved between guests and kitchen, happily doling out seconds (and thirds), while making sure the mint curry biryani and cardamom French custard came out just right. She put great effort into the smallest details, from the pitcher of mint-infused water to the homemade date-and-ginger tea served at the end of the meal. The $46 I paid covered five elaborate courses (with 15% of the fee going to EatWith). Portions were small (this was Indian tapas after all), but there was plenty to go around; no one left hungry. Wine was not included, though guests were welcome to bring their own – and everyone in my party did, happily sharing their pinot and rioja with one another.
With some guests gathered on throw pillows around a low table, and others on bar stools at the kitchen counter, we talked of food and travel, photography and arranged marriages (a few glasses of wine among strangers often leads conversations in unexpected directions). We also discussed the EatWith phenomenon, and how surprisingly successful this dinner party was going. "The whole experience is just as much about connecting with new people as it is about the food," said Gigi Kwon, who had attended five other EatWith dinners prior to this one. All the same, "phenomenal" is how she described her other meals. "You get so much more out of these dinners than at a fancy restaurant," Kwon said.
EatWith is only one of several sites that bring strangers together for unconventional dining experiences. Conceived in Washington DC, Feastly operates similarly to EatWith in a handful of cities around the US. VoulezVousDîner, which launched in France in 2011, aims to break down French stereotypes with dinners in Paris, Marseille and Lyon, as well as London, Cape Town and Buenos Aires. And while not specifically geared toward dining, US-based Sidetour offers other unusual eating experiences, such as market walks, cooking workshops and supper club outings. Among these EatWith contenders, VoulezVousDîner seems to hold the most promise for travellers, given its abundant offerings in Paris. It also has rather unusual dining experiences – one host takes his party on an evening stroll around Montmartre after the chocolate mousse is served.
Meanwhile, success is far from guaranteed in this emerging new market. Homedine, which operated on a similar model to EatWith, and Grubwithus, which arranged restaurant meet-ups, both ceased operations in 2013, less than two years after launching.
And just because someone wants to host a dinner party doesn't mean they necessarily should. EatWith is careful to vet each of its prospective home cooks and issues an “EatWith verified host” badge. This indicates an EatWith employee has personally approved the food quality, cleanliness and interpersonal skills of a host. The company also provides a $1,000,000 insurance policy to anyone hosting a meal. It's a wise idea, but hardly scalable for rapid growth. In the future, EatWith has plans to use its community members to take over the vetting process – which could, of course, lead to a decline in the quality of vetting, no – but in the meantime, expansion has been a slow process. Meanwhile, dinner guests also provide crucial feedback by posting reviews of the affair, which can help guide future diners toward or away from a particular host.
How EatWith and its competitors will play out in the years to come is uncertain. But in the meantime, there is a whole world of home-cooked meals with prospective new friends for adventurous diners.